Stories For October 2016

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See if you can spot the problem in this NBC News report. This is the headline:

Trump admin ran ‘pilot program’ for separating migrant families in 2017

This is the subhead:

The numbers show the government was separating migrant kids from their parents back in 2016 and 2017.

Do you see the problem yet? It’s in the main body of the report too, emphases mine:

The government was separating migrant parents from their kids for months prior to the official introduction of zero tolerance, running what a U.S. official called a “pilot program” for widespread prosecutions in Texas, but apparently did not create a clear system for parents to track or reunite with their kids.

Officials have said that at least 2,342 children were separated from their parents after being apprehended crossing the border unlawfully since May 5, when the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards migrants went into effect.

But numbers provided to NBC News by the Department of Homeland Security show that another 1,768 were separated from their parents between

October 2016 and February 2018, bringing the total number of separated kids to more than 4,100.

More than 1,000 children were separated between

October 2016 and September 2017, and 703 were separated between October 2017 and February 2018, according to DHS.

Let’s try to help NBC News out here. We had a presidential election in November 2016, and a presidential inauguration in January 2017, which is when Donald Trump took office. Federal government actions that took place in October 2016 happened during the administration of … whom, exactly, NBC News?

Oh yeah, that guy, the Lightbringer — Barack Obama. Who apparently was also separating migrant children from their parents, although we already knew that. At least, most of us already knew that, and most of us remember who was president in October 2016.

You have to go a little further into the news article to find out what NBC was actually talking about:

A DHS official told NBC News that the practice of dividing parents and kids predates the Trump presidency. “DHS has continued a long-standing policy by the previous administration,” said the official, listing risk to the child and criminal prosecution of the parent as among the reasons for separation.

But the DHS official also confirmed to NBC that, from July 2017 to October 2017, the Trump administration ran what the official called a “pilot program” for zero tolerance in El Paso.

Court records and interviews with migrants show that during that period federal prosecutors began to criminally charge any adult who crossed the border unlawfully in the El Paso sector, which spans from New Mexico to West Texas. Parents arriving with young children were not exempt.

Of course, that’s somewhat negated by what was reported above. The Trump administration may have tightened enforcement in phases to check on effectiveness, but child separation was not the intent of the pilot program, nor was it a new outcome. As NBC helpfully does report, it was an ongoing outcome that began in the previous administration. Rather than report that the Trump administration ran a local pilot program for zero tolerance a few months prior to rolling it out nationwide — which would be a reasonable step — NBC headlined it as a pilot for “separating migrant families,” even though its own reporting showed that separations went back into the Obama administration.

This is a terrible look for NBC News. It’s a very good example of bias and needlessly inflammatory reporting. It should be withdrawn tout suite and re-reported more accurately and specifically.

Update: Say, does the NBC News story ever get around to mentioning Obama? John Hayward points out a very telling omission:

Well-grounded humor aside, does it really "confirm" the truth to readers? The new tactic is to say "Trump, Trump, Trump" in the headlines and all through the story, then quietly whisper "2015" somewhere near the end. This story, like many others, does not say "Obama" even once.

— John Hayward (@Doc_0) June 29, 2018

Maybe they’ll sneak Obama into the revision later. After the headline does its damage, of course.

Update: MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff responds:

That's not what it says. It says DHS gave us numbers from 10/16 – 2/18 and will not break out month-to-month data.

So we don't actually have any idea when it started.

If you really want to know, join us in asking DHS for specifics.

— Jacob Soboroff (@jacobsoboroff) June 29, 2018

Two points on this. First, NBC framed the data as including the months from October 2016, as my friend Jeryl Bier points out. Further, there is already a record of these separations taking place before Trump’s inauguration:

If they "gave you numbers from 10/16 – 2/18," doesn't that imply the numbers from 10/16 through January 21, 2017 were something greater than zero? If so, then the separations began under Obama.

— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) June 29, 2018

Report dated January 10,2017, before Trump inaugurated:

"As a matter of procedure and policy, border agents routinely separate family members, including intentionally, as punishment—or “consequences”-through what DHS calls its Consequence Delivery System."

— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) May 28, 2018

Second, the headline, subhead, and lead deliberately mischaracterizes the issue, as my friend Brandon Darby points out:

The NBC report says exactly what you’re saying it doesn’t say.

— Brandon Darby (@brandondarby) June 29, 2018

The pilot program was an effort to test out zero tolerance border enforcement; it wasn’t intended to create family separations as its primary policy goal. The report is very deceptive on that point especially.

Just to make clear, I’ve been repeatedly on the record as saying family separation is an awful outcome that needs to get fixed by Congress. But mischaracterizing the policy, the history, and the intent isn’t going to help in that effort — it only erodes the credibility of those who argue against it.

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